A Closer Look into Conducting Safety Research on Single-Unit Trucks


By Jim Ritter

Although we may be best known for conducting thorough accident investigations that lead to recommendations for safer travel, our safety studies provide a proactive means to tackle transportation safety problems. Our latest safety study on single-unit trucks, Characteristics of Single-Unit Truck Accidents Resulting in Injuries and Deaths, demonstrates the exhaustive work necessary to understand the challenging safety issues in this segment of transportation.

Transportation safety research is daunting work. Unlike accident investigations where the proverbial “smoking gun” might be found in a flight data recorder, a faulty engine component, or a cell phone record, clues that lead to a successful study often are buried deep in megabytes of data that must be painstakingly analyzed. But thorough research doesn’t rely solely on databases. Case reviews and the latest technologies, such as geographic information systems, provide crucial information that help to answer research hypotheses. By assembling a team with diverse specialties, we devised a robust research plan to accomplish our study goals.

For this safety study on single-unit trucks, our team consisted of epidemiologists, a geographer, and engineers with different areas of expertise. In addition, we collaborated with public research universities, another federal agency, and state agencies that also have an interest in improving safety.

Key sources of data on injury severity and hospital treatment were state records linking police and hospital reports. Transportation research analysts analyzed several national databases with thousands of accident records that spanned five years. As with any investigation, there are obstacles to overcome. For instance, to improve the quality and accuracy of the data, analysts had to develop and use a software program to decode vehicle identification numbers. Staff skilled in geographic information systems used the latest technologies to map single-unit truck accidents according to various accident criteria. The use of these exciting technologies for this study enables us to present complex spatial information in simple graphics.

To further understand what happens during single-unit truck accidents, highway safety experts conducted case reviews. Specialists in the fields of vehicle dynamics, accident reconstruction, vehicle operations, and biomechanics reviewed single-unit truck accidents, the injuries sustained, and what countermeasures may have prevented the accidents and minimized the injuries.

Several public research universities and federal and state agencies recognized the importance of our single-unit truck safety study and provided invaluable assistance. We are grateful for the contributions of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, Maryland CODES at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Minnesota Department of Health, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and the University of Utah CODES Project. We also appreciate the contributions of staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who helped make this study possible and provided extensive technical advice. We are pleased to have collaborated with these entities to produce this study that will benefit the traveling public.

On June 4th, the results of our study on single-unit trucks will be presented to Board Members at a public meeting. Whether you attend the free meeting, watch live via webcast, or read the full report after it is released, you’ll see how the thorough research that we completed has come together to make recommendations for reducing single-unit truck accidents.

Jim Ritter is deputy director of the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering.

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